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“Heritage Battalion” Is Forming

By Ron Heal

For the past 17 years, Dave Weaver has headed an organization that has brought the Chicagoland Emergency Vehicle Show to the western suburbs of Chicago. This event has grown to a three-day show of emergency vehicles that include fire, police, ambulance, professional cars, and military vehicles. The show is usually held in early August. The dates for the 2019 show are August 2-4. Friday evening and all day Saturday are the main days for the public show. A Friday evening of lights and sirens brings a long line of vehicles parading from North Aurora down to Oswego, Illinois. Saturday finds a variety of vintage and current emergency vehicles displayed in downtown Oswego. For 2019, the show is scheduled to take place along Station Drive, just off Orchard Road and Mill Road in Oswego. From early Saturday morning well into the afternoon, the display and events make for an interesting and active day. Sunday is a private event for participants in the show.

In 2018, Weaver told me that he anticipated some former Chicago (IL) Fire Department (CFD) apparatus would be a part of the show. That turned out to be correct as two very interesting former CFD rigs drove in from the west.

It turns out that Kris Habermehl has quietly been building up a fleet of retired Chicago Fire Department fire apparatus. Habermehl lives in Davis Junction, Illinois, near Rockford. Habermehl is active in Chicago radio and TV, currently associated with WBBM News Radio 780 AM. He reports on morning and evening rush hour traffic conditions, just as he has been doing for 27 years. While that was once done with the aid of a helicopter, today Habermehl is a part of the traffic conditions from a car. He is a long-time radio host of the annual Chicago Air & Water Show on WBBM Radio, and narrator for the Chicago Fire Department’s air-sea rescue demonstration that is a part of the air and water show. Habermehl is an historian and lecturer on Chicago city, maritime, and aviation history. He explains that he is a lover of all things Chicago—especially her Chicago Fire Department.

His idea of a “Heritage Battalion” has evolved over the years. It all started in 2008 when Habermehl acquired a fully functional, original condition 1975 Seagrave 100-foot rear mount aerial ladder truck. He bought that apparatus on eBay. Prior to that time Habermehl owned some vintage cars and even a fire truck that was not CFD-related. There was a personal satisfaction owning the former Truck 28 and seeing the reaction wherever he took his rig to display or parade. Habermehl quotes author Kurt Vonnegut, “I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire truck”. Habermehl operates on that quote, combined with a respect for Chicago fire fighters and the apparatus they responded with. What better way than having a collection of retired Chicago Fire Department apparatus to care for and display?

So, what units were displayed at Oswego, and what other units does he have to form his Heritage Battalion? Two rigs rolled into Oswego. Reserve Snorkel 1, a 1985 Seagrave 85-foot Snorkel that spent most of its service life as a spare unit and former Truck 9, a 1973 American LaFrance 100-foot rear-mount aerial ladder that got the attention of everyone attending the show. Kris points out that these are just two pieces of apparatus in a larger collection. He has several additional units that he has been able to acquire—mostly by learning how to use the Internet and purchase online from Chicago city salvage. Old fire trucks usually sell at a reasonable price. It is the upkeep and storage that get expensive.

Here is a list of apparatus that Kris has acquired since 2008:

  • T-28, a 1975 Seagrave 100-foot aerial. Bought on eBay.
  • T-9, a 1973 American LaFrance 100-foot aerial. From Fire Museum of Greater Chicago.
  • Reserve Snorkel 1, an 85-foot snorkel. In partnership with Ron and Janeen Joynt.
  • 5-6-6, a 1978 Ford C8000 Special Operations Support. On line auction.
  • Squad 2, a 2000 HME/Central States rescue. Online auction.
  • Reserve Snorkel, a 1987 E-ONE/Spartan 55-foot snorkel
  • Battalion 19, a 2010 Ford Expedition

The Reserve Snorkel 1 proved to have more of a story attached to it being a key piece in Habermehl’s collection. Kris shared that the rig was a 13th-hour save from going to the scrap pile. While the rig was advertised in the usual manner on the Internet, somehow that rig escaped Habermehl’s attention. It was only after the scrap yard had won the bid that Habermehl was able to begin negotiations with the successful scrap yard bidder. The new asking price proved to be out of Habermehl’s range. A hurried phone call to Ron and Janeen Joynt resulted in Ron and Janeen wanting to save an important piece of apparatus history and at the same time surprise their son Talon on his birthday. While Habermehl now has custody and maintains the rig, Talon is the proud owner of the last big Snorkel.

Habermehl is quick to point out that several of his more recent additions need some restoration and mechanical work before they can go on the muster circuit. Markings and lettering will be reapplied; lighting and warning systems will be duplicated—all to restore each piece to an accurate representation of how the rigs looked and sounded when in service.

There are so many logistics involved when owning vintage apparatus. One very big issue is storage. While Habermehl has plenty of space out in Davis Junction, he needs to build a couple of pole buildings to get the rigs out of the weather. Another issue is that you can’t drive more than one at a time. Habermehl has a ready pool of drivers from the Kirkland Community (IL) Fire District in northern DeKalb County. For 13 years, Habermehl has been with the department. He serves as a lieutenant and the training officer.

While Habermehl has a very impressive stable of Chicago Fire Department apparatus, he is also in contact with other area collectors who own former Chicago rigs, and he hopes to coordinate it so as many units as possible can be a part of events like the Chicagoland Emergency Vehicles Show in August at Oswego and the Fire Buffs of Illinois/5-11 Club Chicago Fire Muster at the Chicago Fire Academy in June. It would be great if Father Tom could arrange to bring his FWD TDA aerial back to the Fire Academy one more time.

Habermehl feels that at the end of the day it takes an ensembled cast to make miracles happen! He is off to a good start when it comes to preserving and honoring some great former Chicago Fire Department rigs!

RON HEAL compiles the “Apparatus Showcase” and “Recent Orders” departments monthly in Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment.